Tito Gobbi - 100th Anniversary Edition

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VERDI Rigoletto: Acts I and II excerpts1. PUCCINI Gianni Schicchi: Excerpts2. Tosca: Acts I and II excerpts3 Edward Downes, cond; Tito Gobbi (Rigoletto, Gianni Schicchi, Scarpia); 1Renata Scotto (Gilda); 1Dennis Wicks (Sparafucile); 2Elizabeth Bainbridge (Zita); 2Jeanette Sinclair (Nella); 2Michael Langdon (Simone); 3Marie Collier (Tosca); 3The Bowles Bevan Singers; 1New Philharmonia O; 2New SO; 3Royal PO ICA 5118, mono (DVD: 86:00)

This video, titled “Tito Gobbi 100th Anniversary Edition,” is at once both absolutely thrilling and utterly exasperating. All too little film footage survives of Gobbi, who was not simply one of the great singers but also one of the most riveting actors on the operatic stage during the 20th century. Three complete operatic performances by him have survived on film: Belcore in L’elisir d’amore, Tonio in Pagliacci, and (most valuably) the title role in Rigoletto. (The last-named has never been issued on DVD, and the sole VHS version is long out of print; pray that Hardy Classics sees fit to reissue it.) Here we have potted excerpts from three of Gobbi’s choicest roles—Rigoletto, Gianni Schicchi, and Scarpia in Tosca—all made by the BBC in 1965 for television broadcasts shown a year later in a series titled Great Characters in Opera. Frustratingly, we are generally not given complete scenes, only discontinuous snippets, with the opening and closing notes of the orchestra often clipped in order to add insult to injury. What is provided is as follows:

Rigoletto: The act I scene between Rigoletto and Sparafucile, with a discontinuous jump to the entrance of Gilda; continuing (with cuts) until the point where the Duke slips into the courtyard of Rigoletto’s house; followed in turn by the closing portion of act II from Rigoletto’s entrance to the end (26:32);

Gianni Schicchi: From Schicchi’s entrance through the point where he orders Buoso Donati’s corpse to be taken out of the room; jumping from there to the “Addio Firenze” passage of warning to Donati’s relatives, up to the entrance of the notary; and then jumping again to the opera’s conclusion, commencing where Schicchi re-enters the house after having driven all of the relatives out (17:40);

Tosca: Act I from Scarpia’s entrance to the end; the opening arioso of act II, “Tosca è un buon falco”; and the close of act II, commencing with Tosca’s cry “Salvatelo!...Io?” (33:34).

As one would expect, stagings and costumes are completely traditional, though the television studio sets are of necessity far smaller than ones that would be seen on an operatic stage; the film clips are in black and white. The closeness of the camera is not always desirable, as it captures gestures and facial expressions that seen from a distant audience would appear proportionate but up close seem exaggerated. Still, they allow us to see the craft that went into Gobbi’s stage art in detail. In Rigoletto there is the wild-eyed apprehension of his encounter with Sparafucile, mingled with alternating expressions of fascination and revulsion; his solicitous concern for his daughter Gilda; and his impotent rage at the courtiers in “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” followed by rabid exultation at the prospect of retribution against the Duke in “Si, vendetta.” (One wishes, however, that he had been provided with a more realistic, less ludicrous hump.) His Scarpia, already known on film from the contemporaneous fabled closing of act II from Covent Garden with Maria Callas, is the very embodiment of the corrupt nobleman, all the more odious for maintaining the completely aristocratic bearing of one who knows his elevated social status even while descending into the depths of debauchery. Perhaps most fascinating, though, is his portrayal of Gianni Schicchi, not otherwise preserved on film. The perfect realization of the sturdy, sly country newcomer to the ranks of the bourgeois, his face is a veritable miracle of emotional mobility; the succession of expressions it assumes in the course of Lauretta’s plea “O mio babbino caro” is astonishing not only for sheer muscular plasticity but also for precisely mirroring Schicchi’s reactions to every word Lauretta sings. It is an absolute triumph and a veritable school of operatic acting for others—and all the more remarkable because Gobbi completely rivets the viewer’s attention while not singing a note.

With the exception of Renata Scotto as Gilda (she sings gorgeously but is physically implausible in the role), most of the singers opposite Gobbi are not names of the first rank, but their singing is uniformly excellent. The other substantial roles are the Sparafucile of Denis Wicks and the Tosca of Marie Collier. Collier, who died all too young in 1967 (at age 44, in an accidental fall from an open window), is remembered today for two last-minute substitutions: replacing Leonie Rysanek as Chrysothemis in Georg Solti’s legendary recording of Elektra, and stepping in the title role of the 1964 Covent Garden production of Tosca when Callas canceled three of her four scheduled appearances. If one can somehow put Callas’s incomparable Tosca out of one’s mind to give anyone else a fair shake in the role, Collier is very good in the part indeed, if a little green at a few moments; more unsettling is the fact that physically she bears an almost uncanny likeness to Callas as well. In the tiny parts of the various relatives in Gianni Schicchi one notes the presence of Elisabeth Bainbridge, Yvonne Minton, and Michael Langdon; I for one would love to hear more of the excellent Rinuccio, tenor John Serge (he made a single complete opera recording, Semiramide, with Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne), and equally fine Lauretta, Elizabeth Robson. Edward Downes conducts capably if not memorably in all three productions. The film quality is good for its time; the sound track is monaural but likewise also fine. The booklet notes are by Gobbi’s daughter, Cecilia Gobbi. Despite its piecemeal character, for those of us born too late to have seen Gobbi on stage, this is an incredible treat; for those who were fortunate enough to see him live, this is a valuable memento. In either case, urgently recommended.

FANFARE: James A. Altena

Product Description:

  • Release Date: November 19, 2013

  • Catalog Number: ICAD 5118

  • UPC: 5060244551183

  • Label: ICA Classics

  • Number of Discs: 1